Literacy ambassadors say they tell prisoners: ‘It’s not like learning when we were in school. It’s completely different’

“It was the first time in my life I had positive role models,” says Paul O’Rourke, of his time in prison. It’s 10.30 in the morning and he’s speaking to a classroom full of prisoners in the middle of Portlaoise Prison. He talks softly and passionately about how he embraced learning and is now a student in Cork. Prison governor Ultan Moran is here, as is the headmaster of the prison’s school, David Higgins, some representatives from NALA (National Adult Literacy Agency) and several teachers from the school including English and literacy teacher Shauna Gilligan.

A very large number of prisoners have issues with literacy. NALA reports that 70 per cent of prisoners left school at about 14 years of age. During O’Rourke’s visit, 15 prisoners are being awarded certificates to indicate they are trained NALA literacy ambassadors and each man has been allowed to bring a friend from their prison block. I interviewed some of the original ambassadors in early 2022. O’Rourke was also involved in the early years of the programme. Ambassadors are trained to help their fellow inmates with reading and writing and to encourage them to engage with the teachers at the school. The programme pioneered here has, since I last reported on it, spread to eight other prisons, sometimes assisted by men who were transferred from Portlaoise.

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